On my first trip to Dismal Swamp State Park (described in Part One), I entered via the official, eastern entrance and did not manage to see much. The Boardwalk Trail and the Supple Jack Trail were not impressive, and neither was the one mile of Canal Road that I walked.
On my second excursion (described in Part Two), I intended to gain admittance to the swamp interior by driving to the western boundary of the park and then walking in by a route not sanctioned by park officials. The attempt was aborted when I found the access road blocked.
Despite my previous failures, I remained determined to reach the center of the park where I hoped to encounter some of the wildlife reported to inhabit the secluded area. I spent even more time studying maps in attempts to identify some alternate route for reaching the region of interest, but generated only a small number of possibilities that were not very different from the one that had failed during my second outing. In addition, I telephoned and spoke to a ranger who assured me that there was only one method for ingress to the heart of the swamp – by first traveling the Canal Road.
There were two reasons I was not especially keen to enter the swamp using the Canal Road. First, the Canal Road had already proven to be more than a little dreary. Second, I would need to walk the monotonous thing for 2.2 miles just to begin some potentially more interesting hiking, and, of course, I would need to retrace the same dull 2.2 miles on the way out. Nevertheless, it seemed I had no other choice if I wanted to try yet again to experience the hitherto elusive wonders of Dismal Swamp State Park.
While driving to the park I had three experiences that I interpreted as omens of a successful outing.
1 – I managed to avoid hitting any deer that appeared out of the dark at the sides of the roads.
2 – I resisted the temptation to waste time pulling over for photos of the yes-lovely-but-oh-so-typical sunrise.
3 – The number of crows I counted pecking at roadkill along the route was 57 – the same as the number of Heinz varieties. That had to mean something good.
On top of all that, I arrived at the park precisely at 8:00 a.m. when it was scheduled to open.
Unfortunately, the park rangers did get to work on time, and even after they arrived they seemed to unlock the gates and move the swing bridge into place at an extremely leisurely pace. Even so, my hopes for a glorious day remained high while I waited patiently to sign in and enter the park. Two brilliant yellow bird flitted about on the far side of the canal, a fawn waded in the canal nibbling on some greens, and a hawk soared overhead. Good god, such a preview seemed to guarantee that it would be one mighty fine day of witnessing the miracles of nature.
As I completed the required sign-in procedure, the ranger asked where I intended to walk. I told him that I as soon as I finished the Canal Road I planned to simply walk out as far as I could on Kim Saunders Road. He made a sour face and said he thought such a hike would not be very interesting. As an alternative, he suggested a 10.5-mile lollipop route: Canal Road to South Martha Washington Trail to Corapeake Road to Laurel Trail to Kim Saunders Road and back to Canal Road. He opined that the South Martha Washington Trail offered the most interesting scenery, and that chances of seeing bears was greatest on Corapeake Road. He also mentioned that the water control structures located at the end of South Martha Washington Trail formed a sort of waterfall that was quite lovely.
I decided to take the ranger’s advice (the path marked red on the map) and set out as soon at the bridge was in place and I could cross the canal. There were no other visitors yet, so I would be enjoying the solitude I desired. It was just cold enough to keep me from sweating, and the brilliant sun shared the sky with only a few puffy white clouds. These conditions were so good that even hiking the mostly uninteresting Canal Road was enjoyable.
About halfway down the Canal Road I started seeing signs of swamp wildlife – dead trees riddled with pecked holes, bird feathers, and bear spoor (both paw prints and scat).
It doesn’t take a professional cartographer to see that the layout of the Dismal Swamp State Park hiking trails is not very interesting. For the most part, six roads running parallel or perpendicular to each other form a small grid. The South Martha Washington Trail deviates from this scheme only slightly in that it is somewhat less than perfectly straight and it is rather narrow. As far as the “waterfall” mentioned by the park ranger goes, there is no way to actually see the water falling. Instead, all you see is the enormous quantity of scummy foam produced by the churning liquid.
The Corapeake Road includes vistas more varied than the Canal Road, and takes you away from the sound of the highway that runs parallel to the canal.
I stopped for a brief rest when I reached the intersection of Corapeake Road and Laurel Trail. This was the halfway point of my hike.
I was looking westward down the Corapeake Road when the ranger’s prediction came true. In the far distance, bears came out of the brush on the left of the road, crossed, and disappeared into the brush on the right. I struggled with my camera and tried to focus on the faraway animals, but they were gone before I could snap any pictures. I was very excited. These were the first bears I had seen in North Carolina. I considered altering my route in order to walk more of the Corapeake Road, but my hips and feet were already starting to ache, so I chose not to add more miles to the hike.
Once I calmed down, I resumed my walk, heading south on the Laurel Trail. As I ambled along I noticed lots of pileated woodpeckers in the tress to the right. About a quarter of a mile down the trail, I again saw bears move briefly onto the road and then vanish. Just like before, they were so far away and I was so clumsy with the camera that I was not able to photograph them before they were gone. However, when I got to the spot where they seemed to have been, it appeared one of them had left me a fresh greeting. Man, oh man, them bears must eat a big ol’ mess o’ berries.
For the remainder of the hike I didn’t see any animals except white-tailed deer. One in particular didn’t care in the least that I kept getting closer and closer. Eventually it was so nearby that I felt the need to shoo it away. Before it sauntered off into the trees, it stuck its tongue out at me.
The rest of the walk to and along the Canal Road was uneventful. A half-mile from the end of the road I encountered other hikers for the first time that day. I offered them a cheerful greeting, and they reciprocated in traditional North Carolina fashion – with cold, blank stares.
By the time I reached the bridge control booth to sign out, I had begun to doubt that I had even seen bears. When the ranger asked about my hike, and I told him about the experience, he reassured me with these words: “That’s what bears look like. Black blobs in the distance that are gone before you know it.”
The day had been pleasant and I had gotten some good exercise. I had seen lots of different scat confirming that the swamp is home to many different mammals. I was pleased that I had seen bears, but it was at such a long distance and so fleeting that it had just barely happened. I had seen much more of the swamp than on my previous visits, but not the area I most wanted to see. Experiencing the Western Boundary Trail (marked yellow on map) in the heart of the pocosin would have to wait for some other day.
If you want to get away from it all, need lots of space to move through, don’t mind monotonous scenery, and prefer easy-to-follow, completely flat trails, Dismal Swamp State Park is the place for you. If you are eager to view interesting wildlife at every turn, you probably want to visit someplace else. After reading a description of the amazing birds in store from them at Great Dismal Swamp, my friends Jane and Ramesh were very eager to visit it. After a walk of many miles in the swamp without a single bird sighting, Jane renamed the nature guide they had referenced The Big Book of Lies.
Since having my small adventures with Dismal Swamp State Park, I have become intrigued enough with the area to start reading more about it. One of the interesting things I’ve learned is that the sap from the cypress and juniper trees makes the swamp water so acidic that it supports very little bacterial growth. For this reason, American colonists would often carry casks of swamp water on long seafaring trips because it was likely to remain potable. It is also the reason why instead of the dead vegetation completely rotting away in the waters of the swamp, it becomes peat.
Below is an extract from The Great Dismal Swamp: Its History, Folklore and Science by Hubert J. Davis (1962) that I especially enjoyed reading.
Old Captain Crockett tells a story about a traveler who visited a hotel in the swamp and ordered a drink. The bartender set two pitchers of liquid in front of him, and informed him that customers mixed their own drinks. In one pitcher he found an amber colored liquid much like fine Kentucky bourbon. The second pitcher contained a sparkling white* liquid resembling cold water.
The stranger poured his normal quota into the tall glass from the pitcher filled with amber liquid. Then he added an equal quantity of what he thought was water from the second pitcher. His first drink seemed to be a bit too strong, so he cut it again with the white liquid. His second drink seemed a bit strong too. In the meantime the bartender had engaged him in conversation, and his addition of the white liquid to his drink was more or less mechanical and without too careful thought. So he drank and listened to the long yarn.
When the story was ended, and he had finished his cocktail, he bade the bartender good night and rose to retire to his room. He found that he was a little too groggy, so he sat down at a nearby table. Soon he had completely passed out.
When he finally recovered, his humiliation at not being able to control his drinking was more painful than the attending headache. However, he felt much better when the bartender explained that the sparkling clear liquid he had mistaken for water was the finest swamp moonshine, and the mistaken bourbon was swamp water.
*Odd that he calls the “water” white instead of clear or colorless.